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Nader’s offer to Gates worth heeding

Might a summit meeting of working multibillionaires come up with a solution to one of the world’s most acute problems, namely, how to narrow the growing gap between a few enormously wealthy people and vast numbers of materially, culturally and spiritually deprived?

Ralph Nader, the indefatigable promoter of consumers’ rights, who has jousted successfully with such business giants as General Motors, thinks it’s worth a try. And in an open letter to the creator of Microsoft, he has urged Bill Gates to join with his “dear friend and fellow cardplayer” Warren Buffett to “sponsor, plan and lead” the summit. Given their combined net assets of over $80 billion, he thinks they are qualified to chair such a conference of super-successful business tycoons.

What exactly is $80 billion? How can you make a mathematical abstraction meaningful to the moderately successful, to newspaper editors or school teachers or the many National Catholic Reporter families in which both parents work full-time to put their children through college?

Nader tries to answer that question. He quotes the estimate of a wealth economics specialist, Professor Edward Wolff of New York University, that Gates’ “net wealth is greater than the combined net worth of the poorest 40 percent of Americans (106 million people). That includes their home equity, pensions, mutual funds and 401(k) plans but excludes their personal cars.”

Wolff made his estimate when Gates’ net worth was only $40 billion. “Now,” says Nader, “according to the latest Forbes [magazine] listing of billionaires, your assets exceed $51 billion, and that may be outdated, given the most recent surge in Microsoft stock. So it is fair to assume that the mostly secondhand cars of these 106 million Americans can now be included and then some.”

The United States, Nader continues, has now the sharpest wealth disparity of any Western nation. The wealth of the top 1 percent is greater than that of the bottom 90 percent of Americans. “Capitalism,” he adds, quoting a new book The Ownership Solution by Jeff Gates (Perseus Press), “is very good at creating capital but terrible at creating capitalists.”

This comment is valid beyond the United States. “On a worldwide plane, wealth disparities are staggering. According to the U.N. Development Program, the assets of the world’s 358 billionaires were greater than the combined incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people.

“All these chasms are widening against a background of modern and accelerating technology, declining trade barriers, mobility of capital, medical advances and presumably a greater awareness of what history’s most tragic mistakes, avarice, monopolies and cruelties can produce,” wrote Jeff Gates.

The illusion is widespread that we are at least improving health conditions worldwide. Not so, says Nader. To cite but one example, more people died (nearly 6 million) from tuberculosis and malaria last year than in any previous year.

Here, Nader concludes, using an expression that is dear to Catholic social teaching, “there is obviously a problem of distributive justice that has not been given the attention it deserves by the leaders of global capitalism. ... The implications attending inaction are staggering fiscally, socially, politically and even environmentally.” They merit the efforts of those multibillionaires “who aspire to move from success to significance ... to come to grips with the fundamental purposes of economic systems and their economic indicators.”

In a response that simply ignores the central issue of distributive justice raised by Nader, Bill Gates says he regards himself as a steward of his wealth and that he intends to give the bulk of it away during his lifetime. In fact, he adds, “Melinda and I have made a start” by endowing two philanthropic foundations with more than $1 billion.

Such charity is indeed laudable. But even here, it is not clear that the philanthropy is entirely disinterested. “One project we are very excited about,” Gates explains, “is providing PC and Internet access to libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Nader is not prepared to let Gates off the hook so easily. In a counter- reply he writes: “My letter was not addressed to philanthropy. It requested that he and Warren Buffett convene a conference of billionaires on the structural issues of wealth inequality in our country in order to explore, without any prejudgment, the best experience and ideas for addressing this problem.”

To change the metaphor, the ball is now in the Gates’ court.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998